CELTIC captain Scott Brown has admitted Europa League football will feel like failure for his team if they cannot overturn their 2-0 deficit against Shakhter Karagandy in the Champions League play-off round tie at Parkhead on Wednesday night.
Brown is optimistic Celtic will ultimately triumph against their Kazakh opponents and insists the criticism they received for their performance in the first leg defeat in Astana last Tuesday was over the top.
But having experienced the excitement and drama of Celtic’s admirable run to the last 16 of the Champions League last season, the 28-year-old midfielder knows that dropping into the Europa League group stage instead this time will be a huge anti-climax.
“This is the biggest game of the season,” said Brown. “We want Champions League football. I know that whatever happens we’re in the Europa League, but we want to be in with the big guns. We showed last season we could do it and we want to show it again.
“Everyone slaughtered us for the first leg display against Shakhter. But look at the amount of chances we had compared to the amount of chances they had, plus we had 60 per cent of possession. They cleared one off the line and wee James Forrest was unlucky not to score.
“That showed we were making chances. We just need a few goals here and I do believe we can do it. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, what matters is what happens in that dressing room.
“Shakhter just defended for their lives over there. They knew we were a lot better on the ball than they were. We showed that but we just couldn’t get the last touch to score the goal or the last tackle to prevent conceding. But 2-0 down? We can definitely pull that back.
“Shakhter are going to have to cope with the atmosphere at Celtic Park. When it’s full, it’s incredible. There’s not much better and as soon as we’re walking out they’re going to see 60,000 fans standing up and singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. That’ll put shivers down their spines because I know it did when I used to come here with Hibs.
“They’re going to give us a lot of possession because they’re going to try and defend a 2-0 lead but we’ve got good enough players to come on the pitch on Wednesday and score goals. It’s going to take three goals and we’re going to have to start high up the pitch and put them under pressure, make them make mistakes. Even if we don’t score in the first 70 minutes, we know we can score two goals in five minutes if we need to.”
Celtic recovered from going 2-0 down to salvage a point against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Parkhead in the Scottish Premiership on Saturday and Brown believes it was ideal preparation for the task facing them on Wednesday.
“In the second half against Inverness the fans were behind us 110 per cent and that pushes us on to that extra 10 per cent,” he said. “Look at the end of the first half on Saturday and how much pressure we put on Inverness. They didn’t get out of their own penalty box, let alone their own half, for the last five or ten minutes. It shows that we can do that. We just need everybody to focus and do their jobs properly.
“Inverness had won three out of three and hadn’t conceded a goal so it was always going to be a hard game for us. Giving teams two goals of a start isn’t good for anybody but we showed great team spirit at the end of the day.
“The second half was like the Alamo – we just kept coming. Fraser Forster didn’t have a save to make in the second half but we just couldn’t get that chance or the goal that we needed until Adam Matthews eventually got in and it was a great finish to make it 2-2.”
Brown does not regard either the turnover in personnel or injury problems Celtic have experienced in recent weeks as an excuse for failing to reach the level of form which will be necessary to book a place in Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw.
“Not in the slightest,” he said. “People get injuries, people get tired. We’ve got to make those changes. It’s a squad game and we need everyone in the squad to make an impact when they come in and if they can make a great impact, all the better.
“It’s not really for me to say if the squad is as strong as it was last season. That’s for the manager and board to discuss but whoever goes on to the park has got to give 110 per cent. We need to do better, make more chances and score more goals. It’s going to be hard on Wednesday but we do believe.
“It took me a good six months to settle in at Celtic but these days there isn’t that much time. The new lads are into big games right away and I don’t know if they know how big a club Celtic are yet.
“But the fans expect us to win, week in and week out, and we want to win. That’s why you come to Celtic – to play in the Champions League, in the big games. They’ll figure that out very quickly. The home games in the Champions League have left a couple of them gobsmacked.”
Brown’s own form has been a major plus point for Celtic so far this season and he feels he has finally put his well-documented injury problems behind him.
“It’s been hard but it’s been enjoyable,” he added. “I’ve played in all the games, which has been good for me because I didn’t play a lot of games last season and I’m just starting to get back to match sharpness and the feeling I belong on the pitch again. I feel as good as I’ve felt in a long time. I’ve just done four games in ten days. I don’t think I did that in the whole of last season.”